You are Cora Fulvius. You are on stage in Hall C at Pandemonium 2019, presenting for Clan Serpentine. This is the second time in your life speaking at Pandemonium for your demon clan, the second time when the clan elders all agreed that your own personal research might just give Serpentine a shot at more allies, more territory.
The first time, it was a triumph just to be here. You’ll do better the second time. Hall C’s rated capacity is 80, about half full, but the people who are here and paying attention matter. You see Clan Infernal, you see Hemophagus, Spectral, Fae, Elemental, surprisingly, even an entity of some kind from each of the opposed deep arcane traditions of Clan Obsidian and Clan Silverlight. They’re here to listen to your declaration of strength, and perhaps think about including Serpentine in their plans. Fortunately, public speaking is one of your strong points, and the other is what you’re speaking about.
“Pandemonium 2019 Hall C.” you say, “I am Cora Fulvius of Clan Serpentine. I’ll be brief with my introduction: Welcome to the future of psychoaurachemical mental domination. Welcome… to Venom T10.”
On cue, AV support projects schematics of the previous states of the art. There are standard plots for those skilled in it, estimates of mental strength vs. dose, casualty curves, delivery mechanisms, command mechanisms, responses to antimagic and other countermeasures. You call up a thousand years of attempts by human hypnotists, by succubi, by vampires, by fungal gestalts. You plot your own clan’s hybrid venoms against the others, showing them outmatching halflives and domination metrics, punching through countermeasures, evading detection.
You bring up T3, the one that put you personally on the map, years and years ago, at the time a masterpiece of mutually reinforcing chemical, magical, and psychological components. And then T10, which blows them all away.
You click to the design overview for T10, and appreciate all over again the complex geometry of the mundane polypeptides (certain components censored for public display), each one also a vertex in a swarm of magic circles and more complex figures in the victim’s blood and nerves, forming and re-forming as venom molecules drift past each other, too ephemeral for most active antimagic to target, channeling energies of compliance and compulsion into the body past exterior magical defenses, soothing biological immune response with a subtle healing effect.
“For those of you not familiar with my earlier work: T3 had a major failing. It pains me to admit it, but T3 failed to break from the herd when it came to the subject’s mind. We’re perhaps too familiar, too adept with negative emotions in this area of research. With very few exceptions, both Serpentine methods and those of our cousin clans have relied heavily on fear, pain, anxiety, addiction, obliteration. And they’ve worked. But small wonder that thralls burn out so fast and are so limited. Likewise with certain intense pleasures: I’m sure many Infernals from the Line of Lilith are familiar with the tradeoffs there.”
“I took a leap with T10, pushed to higher emotional ground. Although the T3 stack is present in modified form as a backup, T10’s primary effect mechanism is to induce trust in its subjects. Loyalty. Even love.”
There’s a lot of muttering from the audience at this one.
“Hard to take that one home to your bosses, I know. I’ll walk through the specific mechanisms behind that claim later in this presentation. But first, I would be pleased to demonstrate the overall effect on a live human subject, right here, right now, in Hall C.”
There’s a lot of excited muttering from the audience at that one.
You turn to one of the stage doors to retrieve your test subject. It’s slammed open before you even get there.
The paladin is back.
She’s not particularly imposing as a person, but the powers of her office are evident. The orichalcium saber in her right hand glows golden-white; they’re supposed to be able to cut through flesh, armor, and enchantment with equal ease. Her uniform is subtly armored, elaborately beribboned, and decorated with sigils of protection and triumph from boots to skirt to tiara. And the bite marks on her left arm are nowhere near as deep or as numerous as you’d hoped you’d left on it.
“Demon!” she cries, her voice ringing with power, filling the hall. “You enemy of free will! You who would crush spirits and cast down the innocent into mental bondage! I have returned to end your miserable existence.”
Before she’s even finished the speech, she’s twirled past a stagehand waiting in the wings and separated them from their head. And then she’s behind you and her blade is at your throat.
She faces the audience, forcing you to face them as well: “Though I may fall tonight, this monster will walk the earth no more. Now watch and bear witness, know fear, for soon your times will end as well!”
You can’t help but think that she could have had your head off already. But she’s not far from it. The razor edge of the glowing blade touches your throat—
—and Brina’s sculpting slips from you like a shed skin. You drop inches of height in a second and lose your balance; the paladin stumbles with you.
Your mistress’s plan leaches from you like lifeblood lost to a swirling river, if there was ever a plan. You are truly lost. Alone. Doomed. You have only seconds.
“Please,” you beg this stranger with the glowing blade. “Please. I’m not one of them. I’m human!”
You collapse in her grasp, sinking down against her, tugging desperately at her. She can barely hold you, forced to drop to one knee to keep from falling over entirely.
“Please… help me…”
Her eyes twitch frantically, gauging the roomful of demons, the escape routes, her chances with or without you. For a moment it seems like she means to drop you; one arm of yours slides out of her grip.
You reach down to the green tourmaline serpent’s eye pendant around your neck, hung there by her long ago, and force it into your mouth. You bite down hard and your mouth fills with not with tourmaline but with thin slivers of water-soluble sodium silicate glass, and your mistress’s real gift. Mouth cut and bloody, you grab the paladin and force her into an open-mouthed kiss, biting her tongue, snowballing her with venom.
Your soft words of defiance are picked up by your ordinary lapel mic, loud on the room’s AV system:
“I’m not one of them. But I am one of hers.”
And then you speak a word in no language ever meant for human tongues, weighted with your mistress’s delegated authority, given to you for this moment:
“[SUBMIT/KNEEL/PREPARE FOR INSTRUCTION].”
As the venom floods both of your nervous systems, your bodies kneel, your respective hands clasp behind your backs. Monitor screens all over the room show the tableau of submission in the center of the stage. You see the look of abject horror in the paladin’s eyes as she does so, and you’re absolutely sure she can see the triumph in your own, before your expressions slacken to neutral and your minds begin to wash away in the rising psychoaurachemical tide.
You watch, barely comprehending, as the real Cora steps out of the audience onto the stage. Her broken arm is in a sling, her body is in the dress she dressed you in this morning. She strides to you, bends down, wincing slightly, to check your mouth and make sure that the remnants of the pendant have melted away and are doing you no harm.
She whispers, “I am so proud of you, Theta. You might not know how much you did today, how brave you really are, how much you mean to me. But you will. I promise.”
Then she unclips the mic from your lapel and the battery pack from your waist, deftly hooks herself in, and bends again to tend briefly to the paladin. Satisfied, she straightens.
“Please accept my apologies, esteemed audience members. Two human subjects. You’ve already met my Theta, but I must have forgotten that I asked for volunteers. This one is now Iota.”
The crowd erupts in cheers, applause, strange emanations. It doesn’t bother you in the least. Your mistress is here.
It finally dies down to a few background claps. “Under the circumstances,” Cora says, “I’m going to have to skip Q&A for now.”
“Wait for me here,” Cora says to you and Iota, and you both obediently pause where instructed. She catches up with Brina and Naja in the outflux from Hall C a few meters away. You hear words exchanged, most relieved, none harsh. You see quick hugs and air kisses.
Transportation is arranged back to Cora’s house in a huge black hotel-dispatched SUV. Iota sits in the back, alone, her orders constraining her to sit still and be quiet until otherwise instructed.
In the middle seats, Cora leans you against her chest as much as the seatbelt will allow, and gently strokes your hair. Your position allows you to see her face. There are tears in her emerald eyes.
“Theta… I don’t want to risk you like that ever again… Nothing I could put into your blood could force you to do what you did for me today, not with a paladin’s blade against your skin. I think… later, when you’ve rested and recovered… I’d like us to have a talk.”
The black SUV speeds you and your mistress through the night, to home.